Anthony Levandowski’s New Startup Looks to Shake Up AV Industry

One of the more controversial players in the autonomous vehicle industry is launching a startup with a different approach to AV development and a bold claim to early success.

Anthony Levandowski, who was accused of trade-secrets theft in a bitter lawsuit between Waymo and Uber, says his new startup, Pronto.ai, will start by rolling out an aftermarket driver assistance system called Copilot for commercial semi-trucks beginning early next year.

In a Medium post published December 18, Levandowski laid out a self-driving vision that’s both more cautious and more immediate than those of major vendors such as Waymo and GM Cruise. Driverless cars are years away, but by focusing on a more immediate goal, Pronto can achieve more than most companies have delivered so far, he writes.

While announcing the new company, he said that in October a Toyota Prius equipped with some technologies developed for Copilot drove itself from San Francisco to New York City without any human intervention. Levandowski said he was behind the wheel as a safety driver but most of the trip was not mapped out in advance. If the claim is true, the roughly 3,000-mile drive is an apparent first and an achievement that Tesla CEO Elon Musk promised by the end of last year but hasn’t yet delivered.

The claim of a self-driving coast-to-coast trip fits Levandowski’s brash reputation. Waymo built much of its trade-secrets case against Uber on texts between him and Uber Founder Travis Kalanick that revealed a hyper-competitive attitude toward the AV industry. Waymo alleged that Levandowski took its secrets to Otto, an autonomous trucking startup he founded and then sold to Uber for hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the new Medium post, Levandowski notes he’s been called reckless and acknowledged “some of my prior comments have not helped… One thing I continue to stand by is my safety record, which is second to none in this industry,” he wrote.

He challenges the basic approach of the AV industry, calling multifaceted sensor systems and 3D maps “crutch technologies” and insisting that more advanced predictive software is the key to better driving. Pronto, naturally, has this, according to Levandowski.

He also warns that the age of AVs crisscrossing continents on their own is far off. So, instead of immediately working on a Level 4 or Level 5 platform, which would let vehicles fully drive themselves either in certain areas or in all locations and conditions, Pronto is starting with a Level 2 system that simply makes driving easier for humans.

The company’s focus is on better software rather than more accurate sensors. “After all, the best and safest drivers don’t necessarily have the best eyes. They have the best brains and the most experience,” Levandowski wrote.

With better prediction and decision-making software, Pronto’s platform can work through complicated “edge cases” such as poor weather conditions and construction zones in a repeatable way, he says. AV development needs to start with these cases instead of average driving, because they’re more common than most companies acknowledge, he added.

Copilot by Pronto won’t allow drivers to take their eyes off the road, but rather allow them to better focus on what’s ahead, Levandowski announced. “Better to do several things , braking, steering and throttle,  super well on a wide variety of real roads and conditions rather than attempting to do everything else that driving entails in a very artificial manner,” and full self-driving comes later, he wrote.

By starting with an add-on system for existing vehicles, and focusing on an industry like trucking that has a shortage of drivers and a workforce logging long hours under great pressure, Pronto may have found a niche that allows it to turn self-driving technology into profit sooner than others can. The trucking industry is already adopting some advanced driver assistance systems. However, its vision of converting semi-trucks into vehicles that can take on steering, braking and acceleration – and possibly the same kinds of capabilities as Tesla’s Autopilot – might run into skepticism from the public and regulators.

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *